7 Existential Quandaries Raised by the Cars Series

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Cars 3. Photo: Pixar/Disney•Pixar

The Cars franchise is many things to many people. For young children, it is the opportunity to be transported into a world full of good-natured wisecracks and bright, shiny metal. For Disney, it is an opportunity to separate those children’s guardians from their wallets for many Christmases to come. And for those of us whose brains spiral out of control in the darkness of the cineplex, each new Cars film is a veritable rabbit-warren of unsettling thought-paths. At a screening of Cars 3 last week, I found myself filled with an intense mixture of fascination and disgust — the movie was full of so many unnatural workings that I was momentarily surprised that the series has been met with global commercial success, rather than what the Germans might call Weltweitseelenschrecken. Here is a selection of the paths my mind traveled.

(1) Let’s get the first one out of the way: Much has been speculated in the question of what, exactly, happened to the people in the Cars universe. (It’s likely they existed once; the cars have door handles.) Jay Ward, the series’s creative director, has floated the theory that all the humans were killed off once cars realized they could just do all the driving themselves. If you encounter this theory before seeing the movie, you will not be able to stop thinking about the possibility that all these friendly, smiling cars may have participated in genocide.

(2) Fandom has also been fascinated by the history of this strange automobile-filled world. The 2013 film Planes confirmed that a version of World War II definitely happened in the Cars universe, which logically means there must have been a car version of Hitler, car versions of the horrors at Treblinka and Hiroshima, and probably even a car version, decades before, of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Cars 3 also confirms that there was a car version of Prohibition — some of the old cars ran moonshine — though whether the prohibited beverage was alcohol or gasoline remains unclear.

(3) This brings us to the question of death. We know at least one car — Doc Hudson, voiced by the late Paul Newman — died in between the first and second Cars movies, and all of the other cars seem to take his passing as a natural event that would of course happen to an automobile. (Planes, meanwhile, has a squadron of planes die in World War II.) But otherwise the movies tread lightly around the question of how cars die. Do they get old and break down? Is a car crash something that would kill a car? Cars 3 is unhelpful on this front: Lightning McQueen experiences a fiery crash near the beginning of the movie, but there’s a flash-forward before we can learn whether he was in serious danger, or merely humiliated.

(4) Furthermore, how are new cars made? Are they born, or created? This is not an idle wonder: The plot of Cars 3 concerns a new generation of supercars, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who are much more efficient than the older cars. How did they come to be? Did someone build them? Who? And why? If they were born, how? Did they pop out of the exhaust pipes of larger cars, or would cars find that concept as hilarious as humans find the idea of people pooping babies out of their butts?

(5) Children do exist in the Cars universe, as we see small child-cars sitting (parking?) alongside larger cars who seem to be their guardians. Is it safe to call them their parents? If they are, how were these child-cars created? Do cars have sex? Before the genocide, did cars with a particularly sharp sense of irony ever try to have sex inside a human?

(6) Speaking of cars going places where they don’t belong, it’s worth noting that Lightning McQueen does not drive himself all over America. Instead, he travels in a trailer named Mack, who is also sentient. The fact that, for convenience, our hero spends long stretches of time inside the body of his friend is never remarked upon.

(7) We also need to talk about the tractors. Unlike the other vehicles in the series, all of which seem to have human-level consciousness, tractors appear to have the mental abilities of cows. How did this happen? Is it simply a reflection that tractors have less-complex machinery than the other cars? Or are they dumber than cars because the powers that be prefer them that way — a mindless, unquestioning labor supply that does the actual work while the intelligent cars amuse themselves with leisure activities?

Anyway, happy viewing!

7 Existential Quandaries Raised by the Cars Series